Phoenix Dance Band
All Fired Up
Firebird Records FBR 005
1.I can pay this disc no higher compliment than to describe it honestly: as straight-ahead feelgood "social dance music" played with gusto and commitment by musicians of proven pedigree and steeped in the English tradition.
It's been a long decade or so since Phoenix Dance Band released their first CD, After The Fire. Purchasers of that earlier CD will note that Martin Brinsford has since been replaced by Steve Harrison, but in every other respect the line-up's identical. It's especially reassuring to find that in the intervening years the band's philosophy also remains resolutely unchanged - i.e. the virtue of introducing to the scene some "less-than-well-known tunes" and unearthing neglected tunes imprisoned in old manuscripts. The musicians do this in a refreshingly ungimmicky way, by presenting the tunes directly and with no virtuosic distraction or grandstanding, no undue haste or attention-drawing challenges, and the listener (and his feet) gains much pleasure from the strength and drive and solid delivery of the melody itself by harmonica (Steve Harrison), fiddles (Mike Pinder and Fran Wade) and melodeon (Rod Stradling), accompanied by trusty vamping piano (Kevin Bown).
The robust force of the band-personality is commendably ubiquitous, and I specially commend to you tracks such as the unforgivably obscure Irish barndance, Pearl O'Shaughnessy's, and the Nantwich/Enfield/Spirit and Campaign/Squall/Burlesque sets. The CD's presentation is commendably simple too, with brief all-you-probably-need-to-know notes inside the booklet. My only possible quibble is that I often became so embroiled in getting to know the tunes that I felt I'd been shortchanged if we didn't get "three times round"!
Hopefully you'll now be "all fired up" to purchase a copy of this storming CD.
David Kidman - 18.10.16
Five very experienced and talented musicians play music suitable for English social dancing. No gimmicks, nothing flashy, just straight ahead dance music played by people who have been around, know their business and play with an empathy developed over years of playing together and sounding really happy.
The approach of four varied melody instruments playing in unison with one in an accompanying role used to be the norm with dance bands, but this has changed in recent years towards bands trying to be more adventurous, sometimes too clever for their own good and forgetting that they have a primary function. This makes the approach by Phoenix sound all the more refreshing.
This second album still features two fiddles, harmonica and melodeon with piano accompaniment though there has been one change since the previous album with Steve Harrison replacing Martin Brinsford. Steve is based in West Yorkshire as is one of the fiddlers, Mike Pinder, with the other three based in Gloucestershire – Rod Stradling, Fran Wade and Kevin Bown – giving the band bases in both north and south.
They say that they are playing 'a few less-than-well-known tunes' and these include some neglected tunes rescued from old manuscript sources. Many of these deserve to be better known and it may be because it is played by this band that Spirit Of The Dance from the Hardy manuscripts seems to be enjoying a renewed popularity as a session tune. Other tunes come from America, Belgium, Ireland, Scotland and Italy, but like traditional players from all over the world do, they take the tunes and adapt them to make them serviceable for their own purposes.
I’ve worked as caller with them at a festival and can report that they are a delight to work with and their exhilarating playing really got the dancers on their feet. www.firebirdrecords.co.uk
Vic Smith - 7.9.16
It's been some 10 years since Phoenix released their first CD after the fire (FBR001) which introduced the session world to some rather fine tunes. In that time Martin Brinsford has left, but his place has been more than ably taken by Steve Harrison, whose harmonica playing is central to the Phoenix sound.
The new recording offers us 15 sets of 'less-than-well-known tunes' (of which more later …) arranged in sets of three or two, usually played twice through and change … which I found a little disconcerting. I found that I was just getting into the groove (as the young people used to say) of a tune when suddenly it would disappear, another equally lovely one taking its place. All well and good, but the caller in me wants at least three times through! The only track to get solo billing is Pearl O'Shaughnessy's Barndance (7) and it's a delight. I don't know who Pearl was, but she certainly knew a good tune when she heard it … as do Phoenix.
Given the provenance of the band, we should not be surprised at the musical melange offered here. Apart from England, Scotland and Ireland (the lack of a Welsh tune precludes me from making any post Brexit UK related comments) the U.S.A, Italy and Scandinavia are also represented … but all given the Phoenix stamp. Vamp piano, twin fiddles sometimes in harmony sometimes in unison, quietly restrained gob iron, all underpinned by rock solid melodeon. All here have played for dancing (and danced … which helps …) for a very long time, and it shows.
Stand out tracks for me are Reunion/Sarah's/Fox and Geese (4), the aforementioned Pearl O'Shaughnessy's and Colomb/Diamond/Squirrel (14). But if I had to save one track from the waves it would be Laddie wi' the Plaidie/Will Atkinson's Schottische (13). It's an object lesson in how to play for dancing.
Now, about this 'less-than-well-known' business. I found I knew quite a lot of them, and others occasioned the "Oh, that's what that one's called is it?" moment. I've obviously known and played with members of the band for too long. Don't let that stop you buying this. You won't regret it.
Baz Parkes - 24.7.16
Since a very young age I have been taken around the south of England following morris sides on dance tours and to festivals; often (as a child) with no choice. I grew to really enjoy it, but for me my favourite thing was the evening after a morris tour going out to a dance. I remember the excitement of getting out of my parents' car and approaching the venue and hearing the distant sound of the band playing for the dance. It was like a little taste of what was to come.
Listening to All Fired Up took me straight back to those times. This record has a lovely, well thought out selection of tunes from both the British isles and beyond. The music is that of friends playing in the moment in a traditional English style which to my ears is charming. It's like listening in to a good pub session. It is not highly polished and honed, and it would sound wrong if it were. They have produced a lovely record of good honest dance music and I for one would be happy to dance to them.
Andy Cutting - 25.7.16
This CD was given to me by a friend; there isn't a dulcimer to be heard - but some great tunes! It's difficult to be objective as I know and/or have played with some of the band members over many years, but if you've not come across this particular line-up, I suggest that you should! The musicians are well-known to those who love traditional tunes played in the English style, and are some of its most experienced exponents: Rod Stradling - melodeons, Kevin Bown - piano, Mike Pinder and Fran Wade - fiddles, and Steve Harrison - harmonicas. They share many years playing in an assortment of bands, sometimes at the same time!
All Fired Up is Phoenix's second CD. Traditional English music is pretty idiosyncratic; musicians feel the rhythm and play both to it and around it, each one contributing as an individual within the confines of their own chosen instrument, so it can sometimes sound as if they aren't strictly together. But that's deceptive; as you listen, let your feet take over and you'll see what compulsive dance music this is. The piano underpins and provides the solid dance rhythm around which the other instruments weave and work. Although the tunes sound very English, the sources are anything but. The eclectic mix comes from Italy, Scotland, Belgium, Sweden, Canada, Ireland and the US, as well as England from Northumberland down to Dorset via Bacup. Plenty there for all tastes. The real show-stopper has to be Pearl O'Shaughnessy's Barndance, which has probably already become both a dance and session staple. You can watch Phoenix playing it at Whitby a couple of years ago here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOkX4zmekNE
Jenny Coxon - 18.8.16
after the fire
Firebird Records FBR 001
Smiling Dickie's Hornpipe / Trip to the Bar / Brown's Reel; Quick and Merry / Doncaster Races / Maids of Montgomery; Holywell Hornpipe / Alston Hornpipe / Gloucester Hornpipe; Champion Hornpipe / Stephen Baldwin's No 2 Schottische; Da Road to Houll / Controdanza; Lord Zouch's Masque / Gamle jes Sonnichsen's Styk; Miss Baker's Hornpipe / Miss Menager's Hornpipe; 'Tarantella' / Sbrando; Hambo på Logen; City of Savannah / Poppy Leaf Hornpipe; Tom Tully's Hornpipe / Weaver's March; Scan Tester's Stepdances Nos 1 & 2 / Sweet Nell; Schottische in A (formerly); Paganini's Hornpipe / Gavin Atkin's Hornpipe; Madelaine's Waltz; De St Paul a Terrebonne / Father Kelly's.Anyone reading this review, noting the personnel involved and seeing my name at the bottom will know that I was biased in favour of this CD as soon as I took it out of the envelope. English dance music played by a band featuring Rod Stradling and Martin Brinsford. Do I like it? Yes! The word 'featuring' is important here. There is no hogging the limelight for anyone. Rod's melodeon, the fiddle playing of Mike Pinder and Fran Wade and the outstanding harmonica playing of the ubiquitous Martin Brinsford blend together to make a most satisfying whole. And no less important is the accompanying vamp piano playing of Kevin Bown (who sensibly does exactly what he is supposed to do - accompany) and I'm a sucker for vamp piano. I am pleased to note that a real piano was used for this recording. The downside here is that a real one can rarely be found for gigs.
Phoenix has deliberately set out to find unfamiliar tunes, and there are some gems here. The opening set of Smiling Dickie's Hornpipe / Trip to the Bar / Brown's Reel is superb, as are Holywell Hornpipe and Lord Zouch's Masque. The new rubs shoulders with the old and it is a pleasure to see Scan Tester's Stepdances along with the Gloucester Hornpipe and tunes from Tom Anderson and Stephen Baldwin. Tunes Irish, Italian, French-Canadian and Danish are all thrown into the mix. For me, the album climaxes two tracks before the end with the wonderful pairing of Paganini's Hornpipe / Gavin Atkin's Hornpipe, two first-rate tunes played perfectly.
The musicians here are old hands at this sort of thing and don't disappoint. The music is played at a sensible pace, savouring the tunes, and in a relatively simple and straightforward way. True, there are the occasional forays into 'fiddle seconds' and harmony playing, but this in no way detracts from the overall excellence of the playing.
Sad to say, traditional music played well is becoming increasingly hard to find, so this CD is most welcome. This band clearly enjoys playing together and has a homogenous style - everything, be it English, Italian, Irish, Danish or French-Canadian, emerges from the scrambler as 'Phoenix Music' - and that is exactly as it should be.
Dan Quinn, in Musical Traditions
There's been a lot of talk in the last couple of years about young musicians bringing a new freshness to the folk scene. Well, here's a band of - oooh, how should I put this? - 'somewhat older' musicians bringing a new freshness. They are two free-reed players; two fiddlers and a pianist. There's no percussion! What ... ? It shouldn't be allowed! (In case you don't know - I play percussion!) But, despite this almost unbelievable omission, they are a wonderfully rhythmic dance-band.
Kevin Bown is perhaps best known at present as a bass-player (in 'Grand Union' for example) but here it's his piano-playing that provides the basis for the rest of the gang. Then there's the twin fiddles of Fran Wade ('Grand Union' and several other bands) and Mike Pinder (formerly with the superb Old-Timey band 'Grey Eagle' and currently with American Contra band 'Flying Clouds'). Add in Rod Stradling (member of, amongst others, 'The Old Swan Band', 'Edward the Second and the Red-Hot Polkas', 'English Country Blues Band', 'English Country Dance Band', and 'Tiger Moth') on melodeon and you have a group of some of the most experienced and talented musicians in England - and certainly the very topmost rank of English Traditional musicians. And then ... Martin Brinsford. Here we have THE BEST PERCUSSIONIST in the English traditional music scene, who plays in 'The Old Swan Band', 'Brass Monkey', Tiger Moth' and (guess what?) 'Grand Union', and here he is playing ... harmonica!!
Now, of course I knew that Martin plays harmonica (he plays other things too, in other bands) but he has never had such a central role as he does in Phoenix. Listen to the first track (Hmmm, I wish you could hear a sound sample ... but, of course, you can! Simply click on the 'Recordings' link, above, and click on the sound samples there. Go on! Do it now!) Okay, NOW you can hear the first track. Good, isn't it? What a fabulous tune (as are all the tunes on this CD). Notice how the fiddles, melodeon and piano bounce along very nicely in Smiling Dickie's Hornpipe but then, as they go into Trip to the Bar - wonder of wonders - the music lifts into super-duper-hyperdrive as Martin's harmonica comes to the fore. Wow! This is simply not to be missed. When they're playing polka and step-dance rhythms with which they have long familiarity, this has to be, without doubt, the best English dance-band to emerge in the last five years - and there's a lot of excellent new bands out there.
There are moments when they all sound a bit tense - as if they've only recently learned the tunes. But of course, that is precisely the case - most of these tunes are 'new' - they are not the ones they, and we, are all familiar with (at least, not in the South and Midlands of England.) In fact, apart from one or two, I'd never heard these tunes before and I've been listening to folk music for quite a few years. However, I can confidently predict that they will not be 'new' for long. These will be amongst the nation's favourite tunes within the next six months. So, if you're a musician that wants to join in at sessions, you'd better start learning them now.
Chris (Yorkie) Bartram, in Shreds and Patches